Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A.B. Facey’s book A Fortunate Life is a classic piece of Australian literature. It was first published by Fremantle Press in 1981 and promoted under the Penguin name for thirty years. It has now returned to its native roots, Western Australia, to be cared for by Fremantle Press once more.
A.B. Facey was born in Victoria but moved to the West as a small child. Nobody could be more Australian than this writer. Cared for by his grandmother in the wheat belt of Western Australia he was working full time from the age of eight. He had many jobs which included droving, hammering spikes on the railway line, and boxing in a travelling troupe. He fought at Gallipoli and, after the war, became a farmer until the economic depression of the 1930s forced him off his land. He joined the tramways and was active in the Tramways Union.
Having never received a formal education he taught himself to read and write. With the end of World War 1 Facey began making notes of his life and soon filled notebooks with his experiences. At the urging of his grandchildren, he submitted his handwritten manuscript to a publisher, the Fremantle Arts Centre Press. The result was an enormous degree of interest. He died in 1982, nine months after the birth of this Australian classic.
This is the sort of book that makes me feel comfortable and warm. It’s a companion and friend, much, much more than a collection of words. It’s the story of a boy who gets into more than his share of odd experiences. For example, he is virtually kidnapped and forced to work for a gang of thieves who made it a habit of getting blind drunk each Christmas and fighting amongst themselves until the drink renders them unconscious. One year Bert and one other worker decide to hide some of the grog. Through a number of incidents Bert rescues the grog from its hiding place and feeds it to the pigs. The result is pure Dad and Dave comedy underwritten by the tragedy that follows. Bert is severely whipped but weeks later, when his body has recovered, he escapes and returns home.
The book becomes a series of noteworthy events, such as one would expect given the circumstances in which the book was written. There is a deeply moving account of an attempt on the part of a farmer and his wife whose plans to adopt Bert are stymied by Bert’s mother, there is an hilarious account of a boar pig with a raging temper, there is the mystery of the apple thief who never left a trail or even a single track. The secret of how it was done is revealed to the reader.
The character of the farmers during Bert’s growing from childhood to a youth varied considerably. As the book proceeds, we gain an insight into the innocence of the Australian aborigine in his natural state. There is ignorance among the whites because next to nobody studied their ways. I am thinking of the incidents that occurred when Bert was lost after a cattle stampede. “The lightning and thunder were terrific. I followed the sound I was sure was the cattle” (208), but it was not and he soon realized he was lost. His story unfolds until, “Then I saw something. For a few minutes I couldn’t make out what it was…Then I was scared stiff. It was a black man, very wild-looking, with a long bushy beard. His only dress was a loin cloth – a real wild one if I ever I (sic) saw one” (213). When he awakened on the morning of the seventh day he was jumped by aborigines. They put him on his horse and led him northward on horseback. “I had been scared many times in my short life, but nothing like I was now” (217).
As Bert comes to realise after his ordeal, the aborigines might have looked different with their black skins and mode of dress, but were, after all, little different from many white men.
At no time is there any suggestion that the book was written with publication in mind. There is a chapter that deals with digging a trench in wartime. Digging with a pick and shovel was hard work, made more uncomfortable by the possibility of an invasion by the Turks who had their own trenches close to and facing the Allied line. Invasion did come – by millions of body lice that gave the soldiers hell (342). This chapter is as good a description of a World War 1 soldier’s life as I have ever read.
His novel is written in a style that is plain-spoken and easily identified as early twentieth century. The chapters don’t become longer or more sophisticated as their soldier-author ages. Their charm lies in the sincerity of the author, a man that one finds so easy to admire through his writing alone. I feel very privileged to have been given a peep into A Fortunate Life.
By A.B. Facey
ISBN: 9781925591408 (paperback)